NOTES FROM INLAND GOA

Watching the gleaming coaches of my train disappear down a red laterite valley after depositing me at Thivim Station six hours behind schedule, which, according to Goan Standard Time, is not very late at all.

Listening to Prabhakar, my wizened motorcycle pilot, detail the decay of Goan politics and still punctuate every point with “phir kidhar jaaneka?” which, in his tone, meant “what more do you want?”

Being asked to lower my normal speaking voice on my first day here. There is no background noise for me to drown out.

Breakfast every day at Simonia’s, where they wish you “good morning!” like they mean it. Falling in love with a girl named Bebinca, She of Seven Layers.

Warbling away in a bathroom the size of a bedroom, with a lofty ceiling and acoustics that magnify my voice to majesty.

An old man leans against an old post-box, reading oHeraldo, The Voice of Goa – since 1900.

Fish. Fish fish fish. Fish curry. Fish thali. Fried fish.

Banana leaves in the breeze, nodding off to sleep.

A bank shut in the afternoon in the week after demonetisation.

An aged woman in a Nauvari sari, grinding grain by the kerb.

Relishing the crusty Goan pao called poie.

Spending evenings on one of many causeways over the Mapusa River, reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the sparse shadows of a mangrove. Feet inches above the eddying waters. The whorled reflection of crows on a wire. Red and green leaves drift by. Shutting my book at dusk to listen to the soaring voices of men singing Dehachi Tizori for the evening aarti at a village temple, while someone bangs out a rhythm on a plate.

A sweaty football team sipping on sodas at the village tuck shop.

A couple – amorously entwined atop a motorcycle – snogging away in the middle of a quiet bridge.

A phalanx of shirtless, wrinkled and boiled old white men, riding into the sunset.

Watching the sun set into the Arabian Sea from an almost private beach, just off a popular tourist spot. Guarded by forested crags, in a small cove with plentiful perches among calm waters. No, I won’t tell you where it is. Go away.

An auburn supermoon rises over Panjim.

Swarthy men lean on the low parapets of bridges across the Mandovi, and fish – at night, off a national highway. While petrified motorists like me swerve to avoid knocking their neon-trunk-clad bottoms into the dark currents below.

Finding out that I like pork after all. Trying beef; liking it.

Listening to old Konkani songs on the radio every night. This yearning, maudlin music is the mother lode of every 60’s and 70’s RD Burman tune.

Everything said in Konkani sounds and feels like a friendly backslap.

Churches dressed in white, with blue trimming. Three whitewashed chapels between churches a mile apart.

In Goa, palm trees grow like weeds – wherever possible.

The iconic edifice of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church is flanked by the long, low building of Anjuman Nurul Islam Urdu Primary School.

No two homes are alike; each is wondrous to behold. Painted red and white, white and yellow, yellow and green, green and white…

Regal staircases that zigzag up to the front doors of the hillside mansions of Altinho, designed perhaps to discourage relentless Romeos.

Visiting my schoolteacher and her family in their charming Portuguese villa – stone seats on the porch with a view of the river across the road, a vegetable garden out back, sloping roof with Mangalore tiles and a peaceable dog to warm your feet. Meeting after a decade, for an evening full of warmth, conversation, and fluid hospitality (pun intended). Drinking beer (and rum and Kahlua and Jägermeister) in the presence of a teacher? Check.

Government buildings resemble film sets. The Directorate of Accounts looks like a wedding hall, complete with chandelier.

Exploring one of the unguarded, stately buildings of the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court. Watching teenagers play badminton in the plaza.

Riding my scooty everywhere (I miss you, 6498), ferns brushing against my shins. Developing a distaste for the pedestrian commute.

Finding a Finding Fanny village. And another. And another.

Tolkien could have set Middle-Earth in Goa: the Orcs of Orgao, the Dwarves of Barazan, the Elves of Poriem, the Mines of Morpilla, Lord of the Kingdoms of Arpora and Gaundalim, Radagast of Pomburpa, the Vale of Sangolda, the Marshes of Marcaim, the Last Homely House of Chinchinim.

The odd sight of well-to-do men gesturing at solitary motorists for lifts. Eventually relenting, and discussing parallel cinema over my shoulder with a film festival delegate as I took him from one venue to another.

Flagged down by a bleary cop at a naakabandi. Dismissed without argument after furnishing a PAN card instead of a licence.

Boarding a roll-on, roll-off ferry from Divar Island. Admiring the dome of the Chapel of St Cajetan and the towers of the Chapel of St Catherine, visible above a fringe of palm fronds, as I crossed the Mandovi to Old Goa.

A new bride in a translucent sundress on her honeymoon, with bangles choking her forearms and mehendi up to her knees, kneeling on a pew in a 17th century church and pretending to pray while her freshly acquired husband captures her devotion on camera.

A Caucasian woman in a Punjabi dress next to a gaggle of Indian girls in gowns.

A bald man sporting a dreamcatcher on his head.

From the elegant balcony of Panjim Inn in the old quarter of Fontainhas: a withered dowager in a purple dress has an antique chair brought out of her heritage home and placed on the footpath by her solid wooden door. As she bestows a woebegone smile on all those who pass by, her face is a landscape of pained joy and relished sorrow. When a local stops to greet her, she clasps his or her hand in both of hers, and kisses it.

Tombstones of ancestors buried in front yards. Crosses mark graves by the wayside, some remembered with garlands.

An epitaph: Zolmolo (born), Somplo (finished).

In the classifieds: “Dear Viv, but…why? So sudden, so shocking, unbelievable!!! I shall always remember you.”

Sign at a seaside wedding: “Pick a seat, not a side. We are all family.”

Sign at a Panjim carwash: ‘We give the best hand jobs in town.’

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RECOLLECTIONS FROM A RURAL POSTING

The alarm – damn it – rings at seven.

Emerge from blankets. Pale morning light. Feel for slippers. Fumble for specs. Roommate still sleeping. Curse.

Stagger to girls’ room. Pound on door. Bleary Eyes answers. Tousled Hair groans. Creaking Joints dreams on.

Jackets. Yawns. Freezing breath. Fists in pockets. Morning walk.

A burst of birdsong. The village is awake. Straggling feet on an old road. Butterflies.

Golden hay. Golden sky. Golden skin.

Impetuous turn. A canopy of trees. Well-trodden path. Brambles underfoot.

An abandoned amphitheatre. Fresh cowdung. A signature spider. A narrow stream. Schoolkids in uniform. Women with pails. The rising sun. A slow flush.

A little chatter. A little silence. A lot of time.

Retrace. Rumble! Ravenous.

Misal pao. Double chai. A sprinkle of onion. A squeeze of lemon. Sigh.

Brushing is optional. Bathing need-based. Bowels will not be denied.

Health Worker arrives. Must get ready. Drape stethoscope around neck. Ready.

Ride pillion to aanganwadi. One hour away. Attract stares. Enjoy self.

Children have been coached. One begins, others repeat. Word by word. ‘Welcome to our aanganwadi!’ Pandemonium.

Examine children. Anaemia anaemia anaemia. Snivelling noses. Stunted growth. Auscultate forty chests. Find one murmur. Make a difference. Know it.

Way back. Shared jeep. Skeletal remains. Fifteen adults. Four children. Assorted baggage. Driver.

Bumpy roads. Country lanes. Clinging on.

Lunchtime. Aajji’s house. Slated roof. Mud floor. Mats.

Water in tumblers. Wood-fired food. Spicy, homey, tasty. Plenty of it.

Second helpings. Third helpings. Wipe plate clean. Put on weight.

Afternoon nap. Recover.

Evening OPD. Two kilometres away. Ancient motorcycle. Kick-start. Slowly release clutch. Slowly accelerate. Bike rears like horse! Learn by experience. Bike not mine.

No patient. No patient. No patient. Read novel. Chat with nurse. Browse through musty files. A patient, a patient! Treat.

Want cold drink. Walk to shop. Patient owns it.

Sip drink. Watch sunset from porch. Ride back.

Starry night. A flock of egrets. Blinking lights overhead. Airplane. Trace path.

Climb water tower. Others join. Music. Song requests. Share stories. Shiver.

Barking dogs. Radiant moon. Back to Aajji’s.

Switch on TV. Watch Hindi soap. Protagonist speechless for four episodes. Laugh.

Stomach full. Waddle back. Gather dry sticks. Bonfire.

Puppies yip. Shoulders sag. Eyelids droop.

Burrow under bedclothes. Extinguish light. Dreamless sleep.

The alarm – bless it – rings at seven.

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WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD

Run to King’s Circle. Train to CST. Cab to Gateway. Ferry to Mandwa. Bus to Alibaug. Tum-tum to Cheool village. Postcard sunset. Twenty friends. The weekend ahead.

Pretty old cottage. Wooden balcony. Swing on porch. Blue shutters. Hidden by trees. In the middle of nowhere. A retreat.

Chairs by poolside. Soft yellow lighting. Soul-stirring music. Good food. Few plates. Sharing.

Stuffed. Hammock. Swaying. Breeze. Bliss.

Eyelids drooping. Heads dropping. Streeeeeetch. Time to…what’s that? Really? Conversation. Laughter. Interrogation. A secret unfolds. And another.

Morning.

Maggi for breakfast. Maggi for lunch. Maggi langar. Egg butter salt. Amateur cooks. Omelette. Yum.

Jump in pool. Pool small. Some people big. Law of displacement. Who cares? Water fight!

Volleyball. Stunts. Dives. Scares. Photos. Photos. More photos.

Inflatable float. Lie on float. Pepsi in hand. Bask in sun. Close eyes. Dream. Open eyes. Coconut trees. White clouds. Blue sky. Wow.

Capris. Sunglasses. Chappals. Hat. Venture out. Village lanes. Charming homes. Fragrance of the earth. Not a leaf stirs. The world is green.

Beach is blue. Sand golden. High tide. Clear waters. Chappals in hand. Feet in foam. Walk.

Finding shells. Collecting them. Borrowing bikes. Cycling into the sunset.

Night sky clear. So many stars. Joining the dots. There’s Orion. And there’s…shooting star! Clench eyes shut. Make wish. Exhale.

Too many  people. Too few beds. So what? Lie down. Touch. Shoulders elbows knees.  Wiggle. No place to move. Don’t want to move. What too many people?

Think. Feel. Bond. Say. Do. Smile. Remember.

Life. As good as it gets.

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EAST OF EAST: A TRAVELOGUE

Photographs by Nihit Mhatre and Swayam Mohapatra

Mumbai’s Harbour Line is like Garfield’s Odie – Jumps up and down (between alternately elevated and ground-level stations), and is irrepressibly curious (as it meanders along its crazily tortuous route). North of Wadala are unremarkable suburbs; South of Masjid is well-trodden Bombay – one Sunday afternoon, we decided to explore what lies between.

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What can the Monorail looming over desolate Sewri station transport? Flamingos exhausted by trying to find landing-space at the fast disappearing mudflats? I wonder.

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It would perhaps serve better, ferrying oil-laden wagons instead. Sewri’s answer to Vasai’s saltpans, mammoth petroleum distilleries gleam in the three o’clock sun.

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On a condemned foot-overbridge, we try persuading two brown-haired urchins to let us photograph them.

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They refuse.

Nadeem, Nishaan and Aadib are more enthusiastic.

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Enthusiastic enough to volunteer themselves as our guides. Walking with them, we spot an abandoned Bombay Port Trust building being hammered to the earth.

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Few people actually live here. The windows of these ghost apartments are picturesquely broken.

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With a toothy grin, Nadeem pipes up – ‘Hum log ne hi todey sab’.

Now reduced to witnessing ‘bat-ball’ matches, Sewri fort offers a breathtaking, mangrove-lined view of the sea.

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It also showcases some daredevil stunts.

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We add Nadeem as a Facebook friend, and depart to the drone of the 4.45 azaan. Meanwhile, our three new friends are plotting to kill a man dead.

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This building has the most easily memorisable address ever – Cotton Association of India, Cotton Exchange Building, opposite Cotton Green station, Cotton Green.

The world seems to have forgotten everything else about the place.

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Hulking masses of industries in the distance show no signs of activity. A sun-bleached wall is all that remains of what was probably a godown once.

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The Bombay Fire Salvage Corps (established 1907) building is faded and forgotten – where’s the fire?

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Driverless trucks laden with rusting metal are parked everywhere. Through a tiny window, I enter a derelict factory reminiscent of Kaagaz Ke Phool’s legendary studio shots – dust-sheeted floors, sunlight streaming in through ceiling shutters, and the air thick with pigeon feathers.

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Cotton Green is centrally located and has acres of land available for development. I wonder what keeps the realty sharks away.

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As we walk to Reay Road, the sun begins to set.

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We clamber onto a side platform laden with hundreds of sacks of JK Lakshmi cement. The track alongside appears disused. What will they help build? Who will pick them up? When?

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From Dockyard Road, we walk to the foot of the imposing yellow arch of Mazagaon Docks Limited (Shipbuilders to the Nation). Photography is ominously prohibited. So we just hang around, and look.

At Sandhurst Road, we watch zooming Bombay traffic from a vantage point.

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We are tired. So are some others.

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We’ve seen these places before. But from train windows. There is so much left to explore. The hilltop garden next to Dockyard Road station. The Sandhurst Road shunting yard that excites train enthusiasts like me to delirium.

So we will be back. Some day.

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MATHARPACADY

Photographs by Swayam Mohapatra

Exit Byculla station. Turn into Love Lane. Ask for Matharpacady Road. At the sign for Gunpowder Lane, swing left. You will be standing on Ram Naik Marg.

It looks just like any other city street. Except for this house.

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Lion’s Den (Mr. M J Leao)

This is as far as my directions will take you. If you want to leave Bombay behind, venture into one of the lanes opposite. Narrow, quiet and inviting.

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One May afternoon, I did.

The din of the street was muted by a tattered cloak of silence. The sun was brighter and the air stiller. Our voices, suddenly too loud, were reduced to whispers.

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Matharpacady is an old, old place. Most houses here were built by East Indian Christians of three generations ago. And they all have homey names such as Sacred Heart Chummery, Trilby Cottage and Marian Villa.

Many are older than their oldest inhabitant.

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Yellow walls, white columns, red roofs and blue shutters – Matharpacady homes are a study in contrast. They typically have two storeys and a staircase outside that joins them. Wood was employed widely and liberally, though no two dwellings look the same. And they have shades over doors, windows, corridors, staircases and balconies – everything.

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For a moment I thought it was just us and the houses.

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Lion’s Den (Mr. M J Leao)

But a Sunday afternoon cricket game is in progress somewhere out of sight. I can hear snatches of Marathi and Konkani muttered during siesta conversations. Behind a curtained window, someone is playing the organ.

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Old timers exchange warm pleasantries with a neighbour over the strains of ‘Praising My Saviour All Day Long’ that is playing in the background. Most are busy organising a religious gathering at a courtyard that seems to be the community centre.

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Julia, who lives next door to Anthonio Rest,  is on her way to the meeting. When we ask her to pose for a photograph, her husband ribs her: “They’re calling it ‘Glamour Models’.”

We ask about the vine-framed house’s origins. All discussions are silenced by the appearance of a great-aunt:

“Louis renovated it, men.”

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Lion’s Den (Mr. M J Leao)

An aged couple are staring peacefully into the distance and are tickled pink that my friend wants to photograph them.

“What man, why you take my picture?”

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When you reach Bismillah House and Kusumbai Chawl, you know your sojourn has come to an end.

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Matharpacady has been accorded Grade III heritage status by the government. This means it is illegal to alter any residence without sticking to its original plan and materials.

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Despite this, impoverished owners and the land mafia have seen eyesore apartment buildings such as Mazagaon Towers near Dockyard Road station spring up.

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We of the madding crowd are scarcely aware of the existence of such islets of serenity. Someday, I’d like to buy, and live in a home there. But that would be intruding upon decades of shared births, friendships, marriages, families and deaths.

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Lion’s Den (Mr. M J Leao)

Matharpacady is too delicate to handle such change. But slowly, inexorably, Matharpacady is changing. What about those who don’t want to change? What about those who can’t?

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